Bonehead: Behind the “Music”

Picture this, minus the lights, stage, crowd, and talent. That was Bonehead.

You know what I highly recommend? Being in a rock band. I was in a rock band when I was in college, and it was tremendous fun. We did band-like things such as rehearse, play gigs, do drugs, and get really drunk, but being in a rock band is so much more than that. It’s having the police bust up an outdoor jam session while you’ve got a bottle of whiskey and a bag of drugs in plain sight on a picnic table; it’s dumping a full garbage can out on another band’s gear in a recording studio because they had just been signed to a label and made the mistake of thinking that meant they could order another band to go buy beer for them; it’s the sheer exhilaration you feel when you realize you have a real fan, even if looks-wise she’s closer to a grouper than a groupie. Being in a rock band fucking rules.

In 1990, I lived in a house divided into apartments. Most of the people there got along very well, the one exception being the very nice young woman who came home one day with a shaved head and yelled at us for smoking cigarettes outside the house because “cigarettes are radioactive and kill through walls”. She may have been a lesbian all her life, but the crazy came overnight. She left shortly thereafter, though, after she discovered a roommate peeking in her window as she went down on a very large woman in her room one night (this sounds awful, and it was, but it wasn’t a case of voyeurism. It was done to settle a bet. I won.) The last we heard of her, she was running for the city council on a platform of (and I am not making this up) eliminating all men from government.

But the rest of the house gelled quite nicely, especially those of us with a musical bent. At the time, all I knew how to do was sing and annoy the shit out of roommates by picking up a guitar and producing very un-guitar-like noises with it. But instead of barring me from touching their instruments, many of them were kind enough to show me some chords, techniques, and how if you drop an amplifier on the ground from a couple of feet it sounds like a cannon going off. Fun times.

I used to sit in with a group of people that would convene every couple of weeks to play 1970’s classic rock staples. This was not done with the expectation that anything more than a good time and a hangover would result, it was just a bunch of guys drinking beer and having fun. One night a guitarist I hadn’t seen before came in. His name was Jim, and he wore a handlebar mustache to accent his cowboy boots while he blared out distorted versions of hard rock songs on his cherry-red Gibson SG. I’d never met anyone as obviously zany as Jim, and twenty-one years later I still haven’t. He was truly one of a kind, and we became fast friends.

Of course anyone who was fast friends with me at that time in my life had to enjoy drinking, and Jim certainly did. We began pushing each other to more and more obnoxious heights of alcoholic buffoonery. One night he laid down to sleep in the middle of an intersection. When I dragged his drunken ass to the side of the road, he looked up at a couple of people watching and said to them, “Hey, whaddis yer fuckin’ problem? You think you’re so cool cause yer fuckin’ BLACK?” This could’ve ended badly had the two people not been, in fact, Asian.

I don't know what his problem is, but he just asked me if I play basketball.

I don't know what his problem is, but he just asked me if I play basketball.

One night as we were sitting around drinking beer in his apartment, he took out an acoustic guitar, started noodling around and said to me, “What do you say we start a band? Your roommate Steve plays bass, right? We just need a drummer and then we can play some gigs and get some goddamn poon-tang.” Although even then I knew that it wasn’t quite that easy, I said, “Fuck yeah, let’s do it!”

After recruiting Steve to play bass (and let us use his extra gear), we put out an ad for a drummer. The first guy showed up very excited. As I helped him unload his kit from the back of his truck he told me, “I really appreciate you guys giving me an audition! I’ve heard all about you guys!” I laughed openly at him. “Dude, are you fucking kidding? We’re no ones.”

Well, he was excited, as we shortly found out. He’d start every song off strong, but by the end he’d have doubled the tempo. Jim couldn’t keep up, Steve just stared at him, and I stood there trying to keep it going by sounding like the guy from the MicroMachines commercials in the 80’s.

He was not invited back, which made him our Pete Best, which is really pathetic considering how shitty we were. The next drummer didn’t really wow us over the phone: He sounded like he’d been drinking cough syrup all day. “Yeeeaaaahhh. I’m uhhh, kinda interested in uhhh playing some drums, you know?” And then he’d yawn loudly for thirty seconds. His name was Mitch, he was thirty-five, and held down a job as an electrical engineer. (It turned out that he’d just put in some massive hours on a project and was just super tired, not zonked on Robitussin.)

Although we had our reservations about putting a fucking geezer behind the drums (thirty-five!), we set up a rehearsal and to our surprise he was good, and we got along great with him. I think he was having a mini-midlife crisis, and the thought of drinking beer, smoking pot, and acting like a moron until 4:00 AM appealed as greatly to him as it did to us. He was in.

We spent the next few months practicing hard, by which I mean drinking beer and masking our technical shortcomings with soul-crushing volume. This began a fun ritual with the police: A cop would walk right into our living room (because no way could we hear him at the door ten feet away). We’d see him and stop playing. He’d inform us that we were being warned about a noise complaint that had been received. We’d agree to turn down the volume a tad. This happened every single practice we had without exception. After a while it became funny for everyone involved:

Me: (hollering into microphone) The gate is straight, deep and wide, BREAK ON THROUGH TO THE OTHER SIDE…

Cop: (flipping the power switch) Hey guys…

Jim: Oh, hey Tom! How’re you doing?

Mitch: Did your sister have her baby yet?

Cop: No, not yet. You guys are starting to sound like a real band!

Me: Thanks! Wanna beer?

Cop: Yes, but I can’t. Ok, you know the drill…

All of us in unison: If you have to come back here again, it’s a $150 fine.

Cop: Hahaha, you guys are awesome. Ok, see you Wednesday.

One of the highlights of our “career” was when Tom informed us that the noise complaint they had received that particular evening was from just over a mile away. He high fived us for that.

Cops can be pretty cool, you know?

Cops can be pretty cool, you know?

Tom was right, though, we actually started sounding halfway decent, and so we decided to throw a party and play a gig in our own house. The only problem was that we still had no name. Plenty of names had been bandied about by then. I wanted to call ourselves Johnny Hash & the Bong Hits. Steve disliked this name so much that he threatened to quit and take away all of his gear if we used it. He favored Black Dragon, which he liked because he still played Dungeons & Dragons. We threatened to give him a never-ending swirlie if that name was used. On and on and on the debate went.

Finally, with less than a week to go, Jim woke my hungover ass up one afternoon with a hearty, “Hey bonehead, you ready to fuckin’ jam or what?” “Jesus, Jim, close the fucking blinds!” I said, trying to protect my eyes from the sun. And then, as a way of getting him out of my room I said, “Hey, go see what Steve thinks of calling the band Bonehead.” Steve, of course, said, “Fuck it, whatever.” And just like that, we were Boneheads.

Actually, that name wound up causing us some grief. We thought it was funny and didn’t really think much more of it at the time. The first time that a bunch of guys in studded leather jackets showed up expecting some motherfucking metal, however, showed us the power that a name could have. We sometimes opened with a number by Cream called SWLABR, and a few bars into it one night, a large guy got in my face and shouted, “WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS?” If we hadn’t been so drunk, it would’ve been sobering.

This is not the ideal crowd to have when you find yourself saying the words, "We'd like to slow things down a little bit..."

This is not the ideal crowd to have when you find yourself saying the words, "We'd like to slow things down a little bit..."

We bounced around from party to party, never expecting to get paid beyond free keg privileges. That was our only stipulation: We didn’t pay for cups, and we didn’t wait in line. Bill Graham had nothing on these four shrewd and savvy lads. In fact, the only time we did get paid, we didn’t play a single note. This was, undoubtedly, the highlight of Bonehead.

The university we “attended” had a tradition every spring called Hash Wednesday, which is the best name for a holiday ever because it tells you everything you need to know about the holiday without having to get into boring-ass stories about sharing or anything involving a horn-o-plenty. Drew, a person I kind of vaguely knew from parties here and there, had lined up ten bands and was putting on a show at a small venue lasting all day and all night, only one of the bands with a very desirable time slot had canceled.

I just happened to walk into the bar where Drew was sitting right after he had heard this news. Looking up to see me, he quickly asked, “Hey, you’re in a band. Bonehead, right?” (Holy shit, someone remembered us!) “You want to play the 9:00 slot on Wednesday night? I just had a cancellation and I’ve got to fill that hole.” Trying to hide my excitement, I limited the woo-hoo’s to four or five and casually said, “Yeah, sure. I guess. We’ll be there. Count us in.”

This is it, baby! We are gonna be HUGE!

This is it, baby! We are gonna be HUGE!

Wednesday night we showed up at 8:30 lugging our gear behind us and found Drew near the front door. “Hey, guys! I’ve been trying to get a hold of you all day!”

Greg: Uhhh, did you try the phone? I was home.

Drew: Oh. Ummm, well, listen. The band that canceled? They uncanceled.

Greg: Ok, so do they go on before us or after us?

Drew: Well… I mean… Look, we can’t play past closing time. We can’t add another band to the lineup. So… You know… You guys aren’t… Ummm… Going to have to play tonight.

Although we weren’t getting paid, this pissed me off royally. We’d lugged our gear all the way down here, we can’t play, and I assumed free drinks were now out of the question as well.

Greg: Then you are fucking paying us, pal. We all have jobs that we’re not working so we could be here BECAUSE YOU ASKED US TO DO YOU A FAVOR!

This is a well known technique known in the music industry as lying.

Drew: Oh. Uhhh, sure. Yeah, here you go.

At this point Drew held out four twenty dollar bills, one for each of us.

Greg: What the fuck is this? Where do you think we work, motherfucker? Mitch here is an electrical fucking engineer! You know what? Fuck this! Jim, trash the place!

That'll teach you for having an unexpected change of plans!

That'll teach you for having an unexpected change of plans!

One of the many great things about Jim is that he was always on the same page as me. Another is that one look at Jim, and you instantly knew that he was capable of trashing a bar, even over something as minor as this. Jim hurdled the bar and picked up a bottle and a pint glass and raised them over his head as everyone froze in shock. “WAIT! WAIT! WAIT! Ok, ok, ok, hang on, let me see what I’ve got on me.” What he had on him was just under $300, which I rudely snatched from his hands. “Pleasure doing business with you, Drew” I said. We stopped at a liquor store, bought a keg, and threw an impromptu party at home. We played all night long.

We only played a few more gigs after that. I looked around today, because I used to have some of the flyers we’d put up. One used cut up letters from magazines to spell out a ransom-note demand: “If you ever want to see your cat again, come see Bonehead Saturday night @ 9:00” Another hailed us as the “14th best 3rd rate garage band you’ll ever see on a Thursday.” Alas, these are lost to the mists of time. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will be crushed.

The last gig we played was for Jim, as against all odds, he was graduating. Or at least he was if he passed his last final, which was scheduled for the day after the surprise party/gig we threw for him. Unfortunately, he found out about it and insisted that we cancel it for fear that he’d get wasted and fail the test. “Dude, I’ve got relatives coming into town. I can’t tell them I fucked up and failed the final!” This objection I overcame with impeccable logic: “Well then just don’t drink. You can choose not to drink you know, unless you’re an alcoholic. You’re not an alcoholic, are you Jim?”

Of course you aren't.

Of course you aren't.

So he agreed to study extra hard the night before, and maybe some that morning. “Good, because if this is gonna be our last gig, I think we ought to nail down the rest of the songs we’ve been working on and play them.” So he showed up to practice mid-afternoon, and then since it didn’t make sense to go anywhere else we decided to stick around and maybe have a few beers out of the keg. It was 5:00, and we were scheduled to start playing at 8:00.

Needless to say, we got shitty fucking drunk well before we picked up our instruments. At one point I was sitting on one of the backup kegs, and I’d just told Jim that his mom had had more hands up her dress than Miss Piggy. He took a wild, drunken roundhouse of a swing at me, and we both fell to the floor. Before we could really start wrestling around though an early arriving partygoer freaked out and started shouting out to anyone that would listen, “Oh no! The band is breaking up! The BAND IS BREAKING UP! NO SHOW TONIGHT!” Jim and I were hugging each other and laughing so hard, tears were streaming from our eyes.

I remember the first half of the show quite well. I remember fucking up the lyrics to a song and realizing it half-way through, but the band slid right around it as we all smiled at each other. We had finally become a band, just in time for our last show. Things started getting hazy right around the time I loudly spoke into the microphone, “You know what I like to do after a long, long day of drinking?” And then I took a large hit off a bowl someone had handed me.

Yeah, things got really, really hazy after that.

Yeah, things got really, really hazy after that.

The rest of the show came back to me in snatches of drunken recall as people prodded me: “Do you remember standing on the back of Mitch’s stool and falling into the drums?” No… Oh wait. Yeah. Hahahaha! Jim told me the following evening (after he (amazingly) passed his exam), “Do you remember playing the Joker?” I laughed. “That’s impossible. I don’t know the lyrics!” “You did last night, every single one of them.”

Jim stuck around for a couple more weeks after that, but we never played together again. He moved to Chicago and began looking for a real job. While he was waiting for that to come through, he worked in a liquor store during the day and sat in with the occasional band at night. For a while, he was in a reggae band called Cool Runnings. He played onstage in his handlebar mustache, wearing a Stetson and his cowboy boots.

Two years later I made the move from Illinois to Arizona, and I lobbied hard to have Jim come along for the ride. He was still looking for that adult job that had been eluding him, and I figured I could get him to try looking for that job in Tucson. It’d be nice to have him around again, and who knew? Maybe we’d start up another band.

Jim stuck around Chicago instead. “I could never move across the country on a wing and a prayer like that. You’ve got more balls than me.” He was wrong. He was trying to be an adult, and I was just looking for kicks. He had the balls, not me.

It took me years to realize that working hard and being responsible is the ballsiest thing you can do.

It took me years to realize that working hard and being responsible is the ballsiest thing you can do.

He came down to visit less than a month after I’d arrived for a very memorable Halloween that involved us being chased through the streets of a small Mexican town, wearing a tie with no shirt to a bar that evening, and just generally acting like drunken morons. When he said goodbye a week later, I didn’t know it, but it was the last time I’d ever see him.

He finally landed that real job he’d been looking for, and rented himself a real, honest to God grown-up apartment. Before he started his new job, though, he wanted to go get checked out by a doctor because he’d been feeling run down for the last couple of weeks. On a Tuesday he went to the doctor. On Wednesday he was told he had leukemia. On Thursday he agreed to take an experimental medicine because he was asymptomatic, and the disease had progressed quite a bit. On Friday he had his chemo. On Saturday he had a massive stroke. On Sunday he was declared brain dead. On Monday they pulled the plug. He was 24 years old.

Real life has a way of kicking you right in the nuts, doesn’t it? We formed a band for a lot of the same reasons that most bands do: To have fun, meet girls, drink beer… And like most bands, we went nowhere. But unlike those bands, we had a real life, rock and roll tragedy like something you’d see in an episode of Behind the Music. Only instead of mourning the loss of a band by lighting candles in a park, we mourned the loss of a friend by putting flowers on his grave. I’m sure Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison were great people, but they couldn’t hold a candle to Jim.

But while it lasted… Man, what an assload of fun! Whenever I’m playing guitar in my loft these days, and I hit a really, really bad note, I smile and think of a time in my life when bad notes ruled the day, and we plowed right through them with volume and exuberance. That, after all, is what real rock bands do.

That and trash hotel rooms.

That and trash hotel rooms.